Susan Lieu traces the path from vengeance to understanding in “140 LBS”

Writer and performer Susan Lieu’s “140 LBS” is based on her own story of uncovering the circumstances of her mother’s death after plastic surgery. (Courtesy photo.)

“I didn’t find this story,” said writer and performer Susan Lieu. “This story found me.”

Lieu’s one-woman show, “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother” launched last week at Theatre Off Jackson and continues through Feb. 20.

“140 LBS” centers on the death of Lieu’s mother, Ha Thuy Phuong, after plastic surgery performed by a doctor who — unbeknownst to her — had already been censured for his practices. The show explores the impact that Ha’s death had on her family and probes societal pressures to meet beauty and body standards, even at the cost of safety.

In the show, Lieu plays seven characters, including her three siblings, aunts, and father, “Ba.” As Ba, Lieu offers his philosophy in accepting his wife’s death: “Everyone has a destiny… Our life is like a book that has already been written. Not just me, but for everyone. We can’t change the story.”

The tension between destiny and free will makes Lieu’s story so relatable.

“140 LBS” reaches beyond the tragic and preventable circumstances that led to Ha’s death. It is also about Lieu’s process of digging into the past while writing the show, which helped her come to her own sense of healing and peace.

Since November 2017, Lieu has performed separate episodes of her work-in-progress at theater venues and festivals throughout Seattle, including 18th & Union, On the Boards’ NW New Works, and Bumbershoot. Under the direction of Seattle theater veteran Sara Porkalob, Lieu reworked the episodes into one 75-minute show.

“I will be the tour guide for the audience and take them on the journey I have been on in the last 16 months — if not since my mom died — trying to figure out who she was,” said Lieu. “I cover the resistance I get from my siblings, the mysteries that start unraveling that I didn’t even know were mysteries, and the richness of what I learned my mom was.”

Lieu’s parents operated a salon, Susan’s Nails, in the Bay Area — a common professional pursuit for refugees from the Vietnam War. As the youngest of four children, Lieu was just 11 when her mother died. She had the least time with Ha alive.

In the show, Lieu’s losses are palpable when she describes missing her mom throughout the rites of passage a girl takes into womanhood — getting her first menses, falling in love, and considering motherhood herself. Navigating these occasions was even harder because in Lieu’s family, the circumstances of Ha’s death were not discussed.

“My dad stopped singing karaoke on Sunday mornings. My aunts and grandparents on my mom’s side moved out so we had all these rice bowls we never used anymore,” Lieu says onstage. “And nobody ever talked about it. Every year on her death anniversary, we’d light incense for her. Then we’d eat in silence.”

Lieu said that 24 lawsuits against Moglen by women whose bodies he disfigured or permanently damaged suggest a trend beyond malpractice. She believes Moglen knew what he was doing. After the Vietnam War, Moglen placed plastic surgery advertisements in a magazine targeting a Vietnamese audience.

“I realized my mother’s death wasn’t just tragic, it was complex,” Lieu says. “It was the result of a negligent man with a track record preying on vulnerable Vietnamese refugees.”

Ha hadn’t researched Moglen’s background.

The state of California had suspended Moglen’s license for a “pattern of repeated negligent acts” against patients and business violations, according to the San Francisco Examiner’s investigation on Moglen following Ha’s death. During the surgery, Ha lost oxygen to her brain and Moglen didn’t call 9-1-1 for 14 minutes. This resulted in Ha’s cerebral anoxia and permanent brain damage. She flatlined after five days in a coma.

Lieu never had the chance to speak directly to Moglen about her mother’s death. He died in 2014 of Parkinson’s disease.

In November 2017, Lieu did her first solo performance on her family’s loss, a 25-minute episode at The Pocket Theater. It was called “Dr. X: How I Avenged My Mother’s Death.”

Lieu, who has a background in stand-up comedy, had originally planned to perform a comedy piece but a coach encouraged her to develop the family story instead.

She attributes the time between The Pocket performance and Labor Day weekend 2018, working with former director Paul Budraitis, as one of great discovery about her mother’s story.

“It was such a helpful process to uncover what really did happen. I read all the depositions,” Lieu told The Seattle Globalist. “We retraced my mom’s last day, doing her same schedule, going to the same places from my [childhood] home, to the plastic surgery clinic, to the hospital [two blocks away] where she was in a coma.”

Bumbershoot was a turning point.

“I got to perform the full 60 minutes in front of an audience, see how it was going to feel,” Lieu said.

Believing in immersive theater experiences, she ended the Bumbershoot show by inviting the audience to walk with her to a mailbox and send a letter to Moglen’s grown children.

She had reached out to them before. At first, the youngest daughter was receptive to her contact, but Lieu has not heard from the Moglen family since.

In evaluating what to do next, Lieu said she had to deal with “all this rage that I’ve had in trying to connect with the doctor’s family and get to know them and hitting the wall.”

“My mentor always tells me, ‘Hey Susan, is it life-giving or is it life-taking?’” Lieu said. “As much as I was trying to seek vengeance on the doctor and see if his family ever suffered, or if they even cared — how did that impact the family at all — if I’m supposed to have empathy and compassion for him… I just wanted to know what happened to them. And I wasn’t getting it. It’s kinda like, ‘Then what?’ I realized I had to drop it.”

The current version largely sheds Lieu’s earlier sentiments of vengeance and re-incorporates elements of humor and warmth that more closely align with Lieu’s approach to the stage.

“I went back to my first ever episode at The Pocket Theater, where I did character work, I did scene work, and I immersed you [the audience] into my family. I wanted to return to that. I wanted to bring more energy into the work. I also realized that I need to go back to my roots of how I am naturally as a performer. I wanted to add more humor into it,” said Lieu.

Lieu said her re-writing process has been boosted by her new director, Sara Porkalob, whose one-woman show work “Dragon Lady” won BroadwayWorld Award for Best New Play and will be produced by American Repertory Theatre in 2019.

“Sara created ‘Dragon Lady’ over a period of time, she did a lot of the character work, she’s a woman and a person of color,” Lieu said. “There was just so much identification I could do with her and also her work.”

Although Lieu, who co-founded a San Francisco-based chocolate business with her sister and worked as a management consultant, is not a seasoned actor, Porkalob said Lieu’s fervor to avenge her mother and all her family made an impression.

“While she is a relatively new performance artist, a person’s level of experience isn’t a determining factor in my decision to work with them,” Porkalob said.“I collaborate with artists who use their work as a tool for social justice and who are contributing intersectional narratives full of truth.”

Susan Lieu (background) worked with director Sara Porkalob (foreground) on the most recent version of the show at Theatre Off Jackson. (Photo by Jenny Crooks)

Lieu focuses her new show on the larger story of her family and mother’s endeavors, incorporating the medical tragedy into the narrative. It shares details about her parents’ courtship, Ha’s determination to establish a new life for her family, and their early days as refugees.

She said the play is a commentary about recovering from great loss, our relationships with our bodies and our doctors, the social and personal pressure around beauty, and the multi-generational immigrant experience. Lieu said she re-worked the play to mirror her journey of finding light within otherwise dark material.

“Nobody wants to talk about death. And if I’m a naturally charismatic, fun person, how can I make death approachable? It [the play] becomes a container for all these existential questions, like destiny versus free will. I bring up how connected we are to the living versus the dead. I bring up some heavy shit. And for that, I need a way in for people. That’s why I imploded it.”

Now, even though there remains sadness in loss, Lieu tells her story with power — and magical realism.

“My dad was a spirit channeler,” she said. “I grew up around spirit channelers.” The Vietnamese folkloric practice appears multiple times in the play, along with visions of Ha from the afterlife. It’s all evidence of Lieu’s peacemaking process with the events and her family.

Two of Lieu’s siblings will attend the matinee show on Feb. 17 and participate in a Q&A about the personal impact of seeing it for the first time. Because of the mother-daughter and beauty themes, Lieu hopes lots of young Asian American women will be in the audience.

“140 LBS” also is partnering with RealSelf and Washington Advocates for Patient Safety to encourage elective surgery safety and consumer research on doctors.

“140 LBS” will give anyone a lot to consider and discuss. For her part, Lieu says that she has “found closure and a lot more.”

Update: Because of the recent snow, the run of “140 LBS” has been extended to Feb. 20, including an additional show on Feb. 17. This story has been updated to reflect those changes. Go to Theatre Off Jackson’s webpage for more details.